Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Events, Oceans, Racial Justice, State and Local, Water

Raising Tides & Raising Houses: New Jersey Prepares Frequently Flooded Homes for the “New Normal”

Pardo, C. (they/them)

ELR Staffer, Fordham Law Class of 2023

Hurricane Henri brought untold devastation to countless people in the Northeast United States. In Northern New Jersey, where inland flooding happened even before the climate crisis, many towns faced difficulty in managing the safety of their housing, given the increasingly prevalent storms.

While not known for its affordable living (real estate prices reflect that), many New Jersians have found affordable options in an area known as floodplains, where local river waters flood when the tide rises above the riverbanks. While New Jersey is already heavily developed, the state continues to build strip malls and suburban houses in the marshland, where the natural ecosystems that would normally take hold of this water are unable to do so because it is being paved over to accommodate these new developments. Thus, with the rise in superstorms due to the accelerating climate crisis, New Jersey has seen three historically destructive hurricanes (Irene, Sandy, and Henri) in the last ten years, cause significant flooding and destruction in these flood-prone areas. To put this in perspective, this means that three times in the last ten years, people have lost their homes and belongings due to flooding.

Lower-income families face the brunt of this devastation, and we can no longer ignore the class divide.  Because of de facto racial segregation in the state, the climate crisis will not affect everyone equally. Those who can afford to buy a house outside the flooding zone on higher elevation will watch as their downstream neighbors are flooded more and more often. The repetitive destruction and its financial impact on the affected families will only widen the wealth inequalities already present in the state.

Given this unprecedented situation, towns are taking various approaches to address the problem. Some towns are using FEMA grants to raise at-risk homes in the areas where FEMA had to previously make large payouts to people enrolled in its flood insurance. This is an invasive, expensive, and lengthy process that requires that a house be separated from its foundation, the foundation is elevated, and the house then reattached to the foundation.  This often leads to awkwardly tall houses with steep, winding staircases up to the front door, creating additional safety concerns. And despite the fact that there is a FEMA grant, it is not guaranteed that the grant will cover the entirety of the cost.

However, it is worth wondering if this is a viable long-term solution. Although it could keep families dry during historic flooding, there is no guarantee that the houses will be high enough in the future as the climate crisis is causing tides to continue rising. Also, houseraising does nothing to address the fact that such flooding will severely disrupt access to food, energy, and clean water. And being trapped by deep, turbulent waters in a house just barely above flooding is still dangerous.

Lawmakers must consider what it would take to actually help these people move to higher ground. For people with lower incomes, this could mean providing state or federal assistance in buying a new home or buying their homes at market value. Unfortunately, if New Jersey does not act soon, it will see a rise not just in home damages but in injuries and deaths in predominantly working and lower-middle-class families. Families who took a calculated risk to live in an area that was not prone to damage as it is now with an increasingly unstable climate.